War reenacting, like marathon running, makes the most sense to the people doing it. Others have a hard time fathoming this popular pastime, which can demand exertion, discomfort and extreme commitment.
At first blush, reenactors can seem eccentric and absurd fantasists, old men playing an elaborate form of G.I. Joe, reliving a glorious past they never had. All seem to have a peculiar desire to get down and dirty with history. “Let’s face it, dressing like a Nazi and sleeping in subzero temperatures without a sleeping bag or spending one’s weekend walking around in a loincloth and getting excited about eating a slice of pork belly with a pig’s hairy nipple on its underside . . . isn’t how most people choose to spend their downtime,” concedes Charlie Schroeder in “Man of War,” his delightful tour of the world of historical reenactments.
Schroeder, a Los Angeles-based writer and actor, got into reenacting because he longed for history. He grew up in an 18th-century log cabin in Mennonite country, where history abounded, but he didn’t notice it. In L.A., though, where history lasts about 12 seconds, he started to miss the past. After touring a living history program in Southern California, he had an idea: “What if I could reenact my way through history? To learn not only about the hobby but maybe, just maybe, about the past too?”
He decided not to let Tony Horwitz’s 1999 book about Civil War reenactments, “Confederates in the Attic,” get in his way. “I felt like he stole my idea 10 years before I had it,” Schroeder says.
Along the way he brushes up on his history and learns what possesses people to relive brutal periods of the human story. By turns, he is a German soldier fighting the Red Army at Stalingrad in Colorado, an artillerist lobbing invisible shot at Fort Niagara and a Catholic friar wending his way through Mexican-controlled California.
His fellow reenactors fell into the habit for different reasons. “Some grew up playing with miniature toy soldiers and now, as grown-ups, got to, in essence, be that toy,” he says. “Some played video games and wanted to inhabit the soldiers on the screen; others did it because it connected them to their heritage; some liked the camaraderie and the chance to be outdoors among like-minded guys.”
In one memorable instance, Schroeder meets a man who became a Viking reenactor because of a phone book. While in Iceland, the man was intrigued when he found that everyone was listed by his or her given name, not by surname. “One thing led to another and he ended up becoming a Viking,” Schroeder writes. Sadly, Schroeder fails to elaborate.
Most of the reenactors were happy to let Schroeder tag along. The Germans made him a reporter with a wooden pencil, so he could fit in while jotting notes in combat. Not all were so accommodating, though. A Viking group in California, suspicious he would lampoon them, wanted to haul him before its Althing, “the Viking peer judicial system,” to get the group’s consent.
The book is filled with interesting nuggets. Black men rarely perform in Civil War reenactments; black soldiers are played by white men. Civil War reenactments are by far the most popular. They also are the most dangerous. More than a few participants have actually been shot in play-battle. “At a Raymond, Miss., event in 2001, a reenactor got shot through his testicles,” Schroeder reports.
Schroeder has a laid-back style that feels more like chatting with a friend over a camp fire than getting a historical lesson. He also has a sense of humor. Why did Hitler launch a misbegotten attack against Stalingrad in the southern Soviet Union? It would be “a symbolic victory: Hitler bitch-slapping the city named for his pinko commie nemesis — the equivalent of the Russkies sacking a place called Hitler Town.”
While a well-versed reader of history may find few revelations in Schroeder’s account, anyone who wonders what makes reenactors dress up in uncomfortable costumes and brave the elements will enjoy this book.
Smith is an editorial aide at Washington Post Book World.